Sparking a Revolution in Teaching and Learning: How One of Ohio's Lowest-Performing Elementary Schools Raised Its Third-Grade Reading Test Scores by a Whopping 124 Percent

Article excerpt

As a technology specialist, I'm supposed to believe in the power of educational technology to change children's lives. But when I saw one of our lowest-performing schools increase its pass rate on the state reading test by 124 percent in one year, even I was a little stunned.

About two years ago, our school district, like many other districts nationwide, was beginning to feel the first effects of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Reading scores at many of our elementary schools were unacceptably low, and one school in particular--Fairmount Park Elementary School--had been labeled as "in need of improvement" by the Ohio Department of Education.

Fairmount was a challenged school in a depressed community. With a city-wide unemployment rate of over 9 percent, two-thirds of the students in the district qualified for free and reduced lunches. Things were even more challenging at Fairmount, as nearly 80 percent of its students came from economically disadvantaged homes. For many of these K-5 students, reading was not something that was valued in the home. Little wonder that nearly two-thirds of them were unable to get a passing score on the third-grade Ohio Achievement Test for Reading.

We tackled the district's reading problems with a broad approach that included a new research-based curriculum, intensive staff development, aggressive pre-testing, and daily after-school intervention programs. Because of its low test scores, Fairmount qualified for an NCLB Title II D: Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) grant. As the district's curriculum specialist for instructional technology, I was part of a team that formed and implemented a technology strategy that would have a real and measurable impact on student learning.

Four Criteria for Technology Integration

We were certain of one thing from the outset: We needed a technology solution that was truly integrated into daily classroom instruction. Schools in our district had been using educational technology for years, but all that hardware and software seemed to be irrelevant to the teacher's job in the classroom. Students could go to the computer lab and pop in a CD with some supplemental title as an enrichment activity or a reward for getting their real work done early. These activities stood outside the actual life of the classroom, and many teachers were able to avoid involvement with technology entirely.

For educational technology to make an impact on our mission to improve reading scores, we had to break out of this old model. "Integration" has been a buzzword among educational technology specialists for a long time now, but what does it really look like? We had four criteria in mind:

1) Standards incorporation. To improve student performance on the state's reading test, we needed to make sure that classroom instruction closely supported Ohio's academic standards for reading. We were looking for a lot more than the typical correlation document that explained how a program related to our state standards. We wanted our actual standards language built into the program, so that teachers could go directly from a specific reading standard to assessments and tutorials that support it.

2) Curriculum alignment. We had chosen the Four-Blocks Literacy Model (www.four-blocks.com), developed by Patricia Cunningham and Dorothy Hall of Wake Forest University (NC), a broad-based approach that includes guided reading, self-selected reading, word study, and writing as a way of teaching to the strengths of every learner. Our technology component had to support each element of this model.

3) Whole-class instruction. This was a critical component. Our district was looking for technology that would be a tool for teaching an entire classroom, not something that only worked in a lab setting. The interaction among teachers and students--and more importantly, among the students themselves--is a powerful part of learning. …